Author's Note: To BluePeople, Lucy Wanabe, mildetryth and Surrender - thankyou SO much for your reviews! They mean so much :-)))
The dark and wonderful musical Elisabeth belongs to Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, neither of whom is me! Gisela is mine, although I imagine she'd have one or two things to say about that; as for Death ... I suspect it's more the other way around.
For Maz, with love. It all began with you.
Five Minutes to Midnight
Red carpet, the colour of dried blood in the shadows, muffles her footsteps as she passes soundlessly through the palace. She could be a mere figment of the imagination, the ghost of a small nine-year-old girl, were it not for the fact that she is shivering with cold and the fear of being caught out of bed, here in the forbidden corridor leading to her mother's apartments.
She wouldn't normally be so daring as to venture here this late at night, if she dared come at all, but tonight for some reason - perhaps it was the sound of her little brother, left all alone in the room next to hers and crying for his mama after yet another one of his nightmares; or perhaps it was simply that her own loneliness grew too great - she has thrown caution to the wind and come creeping through the endless maze of corridors and locked rooms, darting from one patch of shadow to the next, breathless and afraid but determined nevertheless.
One hallway looks very much like another. She stops, turning back to study the passage behind her; frowning slightly, biting her lip. Turns again. Takes a few, uncertain steps, rounds a corner, sighs with relief - it was the right way after all - and sees him standing there, a blur of satin black, of midnight blue and gold; the light gilding him as he moves, sliding across his slender form like oil on water.
The child freezes, her heart contracting like a fist closing, hard and fast, thumping painfully against her ribs. Her involuntary gasp of shock catches in her throat, sounds almost comical, a tiny croaking in the dark. She throws herself back against the curtain hanging at the nearest window, lets the soft, heavy folds of velvet envelop her, squeezes her eyes tight shut, and prays with all her might, don't see me, please don't find me, don't turn around...
And then, almost against her own will, she finds herself opening her eyes, wanting, beyond all reason, simply to look at him again.
He stands with his back to her, by the door at the very end of the corridor, pressed right up against it as though he listens closely to something on the other side, something - someone? My mother? - within the room. His head is bowed, long fair hair spilling across his shoulders and hiding his face. One hand reaches up, slowly, inhumanly graceful, to gently caress the dark wood, softly, with the very tips of his fingers. A lover's touch.
She feels as though her heart will break at the utter loneliness of him.
Maybe she makes a sound without meaning to; a low cry of sympathy or sorrow. She doesn't know. Maybe he simply senses the intensity of her gaze. But suddenly, too swiftly for her to follow his movement, he drops his hand from the door and turns.
He is beautiful.
The most beautiful thing she has ever seen in all of her short life. Impossibly, breathtakingly, heartstoppingly perfect.
His face is a pale oval, his eyes huge, wide and dark, glittering in the shadows, fever-bright with some emotion she doesn't understand. Gold hair falls in soft tangles to his shoulders, longer than she has ever seen before on a man. He doesn't look like a man. He is far too beautiful to be male; too undeniably masculine to be anything but.
She wonders if perhaps he might be an angel.
For a long, long moment, an eternity stretched from one heartbeat to the next, they watch each other; without moving, without breathing, caught in the timeless place between. And then one corner of his mouth quirks up into an almost-smile, and he tilts his head to one side, like a bird of prey; a hawk; curious, intent.
"It is late to be wandering here alone, little one," he says, and his voice is as gentle as his eyes are fierce; quiet, like the night wind sighing through the trees.
She can't speak. Several times she opens her mouth to say something - anything - but nothing comes out. He doesn't seem impatient, however; he merely stands and watches and waits, as though the seconds hold still at his silent command. He has all the time in the world.
But eventually the silence stretches too far, wears too thin and finally snaps.
"I wanted to see my mother," she blurts out, adding in a small voice, "I couldn't sleep."
The fingers of his right hand make a tiny flickering motion; a cat flexing its claws, restlessness lurking just beneath the surface. "Your mother?" he asks, half-turning to glance at the door behind him; and then his eyes dart back to the child once more: narrowed, thoughtful, speculative.
"You don't look like her at all," he says then, carelessly, and she feels her face grow hot with embarrassment and anger, grateful to be standing in the shadows so he won't see her blush.
Young as she is, it is a comment she has heard all too many times before, and has come to hate with a passion. People have an infuriating tendency to say it sadly, regretfully, sometimes even shaking their heads and adding, "Such a pity," as though she is incapable of hearing them. She is not so very young that it doesn't hurt.
Taking two or three rapid steps toward the golden-haired stranger, she plants herself in the very centre of the corridor, stands as tall as she can, raises her chin and stares him straight in the eye.
"I take after my father," she says defiantly; something she once heard someone say in her defence, a phrase she immediately adopted to use as a response to any comparison with her mother. Just in case he misses the point, she elaborates, "My father, the Emperor." And she glares at him as hard as she can.
She has no idea how, in an ironic twist of fate, her fit of temper makes her look ridiculously and heartbreakingly like her mother; a miniature study in stubbornness, standing in the icy corridor in her nightdress with her fists clenched.
He blinks, dark brows rising in surprise. And then he laughs, a sudden, delighted laugh that rings out in the darkness, and crouches down in a swift, lithe movement, seeming more like a big cat than a man; every muscle in his body absolutely controlled, precise. Deliberate. One hand stretches out toward her, an elegant gesture that seems at once a plea and a command.
His head on a level with hers now, he says very quietly, "Perhaps I was mistaken..." He leans closer, so close she can make out the colour of his eyes; bright, blazing sapphire blue. "Your parents must be so proud to have a daughter like you..." he smiles, and she moves nearer still, lets the warmth of it wash over her. It feels like the sun; like looking full into the sun on a perfect blue day.
Those strange eyes are very wide as they burn into hers; wide and dark and deep. She feels as though she is falling, dizzy; though she can still feel the roughness of the carpet beneath her feet. Her sense of self is beginning to fade, to blur at the edges, to disappear like winter frost at the first touch of spring. Nothing in the world exists any more; nothing but him. She wants to take his hand and never let go, to escape with him to the world his eyes are promising her; a world where she will never feel lonely again, or abandoned, or unwanted...
"Who are you?" she whispers. Her heart is pounding again, so loudly he must surely be able to hear it. Head swimming, she feels almost afraid of hearing his answer, and doesn't know why.
Something shifts behind his eyes, something half-hidden, moving darkly just beneath the surface. She sees it for a split second, a mere fraction of a heartbeat, but even so brief a glimpse is enough. Absolute rage; bitterness and fury swirling in a maelstrom through a soul like black ice. And a desperate hunger; the single-minded need of the hunter for its prey.
Gisela steps back, almost out of her mind with fear, stumbling in her haste to get away from him before he can speak again, before he can reveal the dreadful answer to her question.
An answer she realises now that she knew all along.
He watches her run, a flicker of white in the darkness like a blown candle-flame; a small terrified creature who managed, somehow, to slip through the talons of the hawk.
Death smiles to himself, a gentle and beautiful smile.
And far away in the winding labyrinth of the palace, a little boy begins to cry once more for his mother.
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